By Lynn Paris
Thoughts About a Real Life . . . And a Fake One
Driving home from work the other day, I started thinking about the strange case of Dr. Alex Kemos (who isn’t really doctor Kemos at all as it turns out, but I’ll get to that) and my thoughts started straying to my own higher education experience. It’s ironic that I wound up working in academia, and yet for the most part I’ve looked at it as a job, a really great gig, and not thought much about the rest of it.
But for the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about the “rest of it” a great deal. I’ve been thinking about how the vast majority of my colleagues at Texas A&M University have never really left academia. Many of them, in fact, have never left Texas A&M. They got their undergraduate and graduate degrees there and then signed on to work in some capacity until they reached their current position, ten, twenty, thirty years later. They’re “Aggies” and incredibly proud of it, which has always engendered mixed emotions in me.
Part of me has been envious. For my job I am constantly researching and writing articles and speeches about the amazing Aggie Family and its network of close to 400,000 former students. I know there’s nothing quite like it; it’s like a club that’s always there for you with bonds forged for life, and it’s a club to which I can never belong. There’s the famous Aggie ring they all wear with such pride and all the Aggie traditions and Aggie spirit. I can’t help but be reminded of the sorority I didn’t get into when I was a sophomore in high school . . . such a silly thing now, but how devastating then to be left out. And so sometimes, I’d give anything to wear that Aggie ring, just as I would have given anything to wear that Delta Lambda blazer decades ago.
Then again, part of me has felt above it all. These people have lived their whole lives as big fish in this tiny little pond; I’ve lived and worked in the corporate world in New York and California and only came to College Station, Texas, four years ago. I’d never even heard of Texas A&M until then, so in my mind there have been times when I’ve wanted to tell them all that it’s no big thing . . . try making it in a big pond!
But for the most part, I rarely think about either of those things. I simply enjoy my job, and have become extremely proud and respectful of the university I currently represent.
I have occasionally wished, however, that I had at least gotten my master’s; I came so close. I finally went to graduate school while I was working a full-time job and I completed all my course work in clinical psychology, but never completed my internship. So, all that work and nothing to show for it. Well, nothing except the depression I had to fight my way out of after two solid years of working at either work/work or school/work for 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. The fact is that almost every one of my colleagues has at least a master’s degree. It is rarely an issue; it’s not a requirement for my job and almost never even mentioned, but it’s something I regret not achieving. And until a few days ago, I’d never given it more than a few seconds of thought.
But as I was driving home the other day, something I had never before realized occurred to me. I was a first-generation college student. I didn’t even know the phrase before, but in higher education circles today it’s something that’s discussed often. I’ve written about it, researched it, quoted facts about the 25 percent of students who are “first gens” at Texas A&M, but never once related to it personally. But there it was. I had been the first one in my family to go to college.
The thing is, when we talk about first generation college students these days it’s because they’re special. They have broken a pattern, either because they come from the “underrepresented” population (ie; African-American or Hispanic-American) or they come from hard-working but low-income families. And in almost every case, the university rewards these students for breaking that pattern. They are celebrated, because it is understood that someone (a parent, teacher, advisor) helped them understand that education was the key to everything; it would open doors for them and guarantee their future. Most come from families for whom higher education was a far-away dream, one that their child could finally fulfill.
It wasn’t like that for me. I was going to college because I was smart. That’s what the smart kids, the ones in the National Honor Society and the ones who took the AP courses did . . . it was a given. It was always assumed I’d go to college, but the value of an education was never the point. My family never talked about what I could do with my degree or what I might become; they simply knew, along with everyone else, that the smart kids went to college. No one ever talked about first-generation college students and there were no rewards. My parents paid for me to attend NYU because it would have been seen as a social gaffe to do anything else.
That burning desire for higher education’s inherent value wasn’t part of my middle-class family culture as it seems to have been for so many of my colleagues; it was just the next logical step before getting married and having kids. Which is probably why it was so easy for me to drop out at the end of my sophomore year, marry my current boyfriend and have two children within three years. No bemoaning of unfulfilled dreams from my parents. In fact, they probably thought I’d achieved my ultimate goal two years ahead of schedule.
It was about twelve years later that my own burning desire manifested itself and I returned to college to get my then coveted degree, coveted because I finally understood its value. I went to classes while my kids were in school, and graduated summa cum laude. I was offered a paid-for assistantship in the Ph.D. program at Fordham but I turned it down; my children were too young for me to devote five more years to school. I’ve only recently thought about how profoundly that would have changed my life, but I knew, at the time, that I made the right decision for my family.
At any rate, I have no idea why all of this became breaking news to me just the other day, or what any of it really means. But I do know what provoked it. I was thinking about Alex Kemos. In fact, just about everyone employed at or associated with Texas A&M was obsessing about this incomprehensible story.
Alex Kemos held the third highest-ranking position in the administration of Texas A&M, the sixth largest public research university in the country. He had the total respect of his peers and staff and the trust of the president of the university. He was highly accomplished and did his job exceptionally well. He has a wife and three beautiful young children.
He, like I, had come to A&M from the private sector, but quickly ascended to his position of pre-eminence because he had all the requisite credentials. He had a master’s and a doctorate from Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He’d taught at Harvard and at the U.S. Naval War College. And, he had distinguished himself as a Navy SEAL, something of inordinate value at a school with the military tradition of Texas A&M. His resume was one of the most impressive I’d ever seen for a non-faculty member; he was the complete package.
Except, he was a complete fraud. Two weeks ago someone alerted the media and within a couple of days an investigation revealed he had neither a master’s nor a Ph.D. He’d been enrolled in the programs, like I had been, but never completed them. His work experience, like my own, was substantial enough to get him good jobs, but he didn’t have those degrees. Apparently he wanted them, and the positions they’d yield, badly enough to lie. I can understand the temptation, especially when you’ve done so much work with nothing to show for it, but I cannot fathom lying about it.
The most egregious lie, however, was his military service. Not only was Mr. Kemos never a Navy SEAL; he had never even served in the military. This man talked to members of our Corps of Cadets and related tales of his exploits to them. They looked up to him as a member of an elite fighting force. He must have needed that adulation desperately. So desperately that he made himself up. He lied and lied and kept on lying until the day he was busted. He is either a pathological liar or a brazen con artist. Needless to say, his story sent shockwaves through the university. God knows what it’s done to his family.
As I said, I have no idea what this story has to do with my wandering thoughts about my own higher education story except to have provoked them. Then again, maybe it’s all tied together . . . the real and perceived value of those degrees and the decisions we make along the way. Maybe it’s about the disappointment I sometimes feel without them, weighed against the value of making good choices for your family, or maintaining your sanity. Maybe it’s about simple integrity. I’m not sure, but I do know that the letters after your name are only worth something if you’ve earned them. They are not worth sacrificing your kids’ welfare for . . . or suffering a depression over. And they would never be worth lying about.